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In the lead up to the reorganization of the fire department from the Board of County Commission to the Citrus County Sheriff ’s Office in 2011, we were provided information that lead to head scratching. Whereas retirees who served in various levels of public safety (be it police or fire) have always bought into the notion ‘change is inevitable’, there was uneasiness in our ranks; this because there was no first frame of reference to events as being depicted. People relocating to Citrus during this period had to go with the flow. It was like entering a movie theatre well after the start of the feature. You’re trying to figure out the plot while taking in the sound and motion as it happens. So in this series you find some background and analysis for reference going forward. As expected change is fluid. Such is daily life. Nevertheless it’s the more recent events causing new consternation.

When first moving to Pine Ridge in 2010, getting acclimated to the area was just a normal thing to do. Likewise getting a feel for Citrus government and the services they could provide was just as normal. While transitioning to our new home, information provided by The Chronicle (the only paper at the time) hinted residents should be concerned about overall fire and rescue service. Further research revealed the budget (or lack thereof), personnel qualifications, training, facilities, equipment and most important response time were all concerns. It didn’t take long to realize there would be a difference in service as compared to what I was accustomed. It certainly wasn’t “Mayberry” as was frequently positively described before the move, nor was it the large metro area wherein the scope of service was admirable. Because Citrus is somewhere in between I paid close attention. For the record, I was ready for Mayberry.

I reached out to my Commissioner, Joe Meek, and volunteered my service to the soon to be established Public Safety Initiative Task Force. The mission was a broad review of public safety and to consider the merit of the Sheriff ’s Office absorbing the Fire Department. After meeting with Meek in his office, he called to advise the last available citizen slot had literally been filled the previous day. No matter; I wasn’t looking for a formal position, but rather just wanted to be directly informed. Commissioner Meek invited me to the meetings to listen and provide any input directly. Another option was to get with him after hours. It only took one meeting for my own assessment; they were on the best track. This conclusion was solidified when I realized professionals known throughout my career were giving testimony: Dr. James Sewell, previously an Assistant Commissioner with FDLE, Leonard Matarese, who was then Director of Research and Project Development for the International City/County Managers Association, ICMA, and then Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti. All are professionals in their own right and their presentations as to the pros and cons of a merger were noticeably absorbed as an attentive committee questioned them. It was no surprise as to their preparedness, as I had interacted with each for the better part of 15-30 years. In fact, when Matarese was the President of the Miami Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police, he tapped me to be a member of the Executive Board as Treasurer. I “moved on up”, as they say, after his retirement.

I mean no disparagement to any member or volunteer to the fire service in the years prior to the so called “merger”. It was apparent everyone did the best they could with what they had to work with. Larry Morabito was the Fire Chief before and after the merger. He ‘assumed the position’, (pun intended) a few years before and soon learned the Citrus approach toward budget was the necessary band aid. The larger issue was the fire service had never been fully developed and was victimized by institutional budget lag for many years. Public safety personnel enjoy the most success when their government bosses allow it. Even the best people can be negatively affected by minimal funding. This was the reality. Credit Meek; he deserves kudos for finally providing the long needed leadership on this matter. He pointed the way at the commission level for what should be a lasting legacy: the improvement of public safety.

Enter Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, who brought his leadership, along with commensurate organizational and budget insight. He clearly understood the need for improvement. In a best case scenario you’d have qualified and highly trained fire personnel arriving first on scene either to a fire or person in need of rescue. I remember in my early days when LEOs arrived first they saved who they could; when Dade County Fire Rescue came on line they saved so many more. Dawsy was the right person at the right time to inject management direction.

The CCSO became one of a relatively few public safety organizations in the US of A boasting both police and fire service and only the second in Florida. This should have been lauded as a significant innovation for any jurisdiction. It never got the PR bump it deserved. In many ways this hybrid was modeled after Broward County which is thriving today. Some committed career personnel and volunteers were already assigned and more were recruited and trained. Proper staffing was receiving management attention while facilities and equipment were given focus.

In May 2017 the BOCC voted to end their agreement with CCSO and October 1st took back a much improved fire franchise. I’m not convinced it was done for all the right reasons. A review of the May 9, 2017 BOCC Special Meeting shows a predisposition on the part of some commissioners. In the best government environment any healthy adversarial discussion should serve to educate and inform— in both directions. Then Fire Chief Jim Goodworth took it on the chin from some commissioners. He was there to generally inform; they were there for a budget inquisition. The most critical inquiry can come much later following the review of a given after action report. Such reports usually cite issues both pro and con. Fiscally sound spending always; but with vision weighing both efficiency and effectiveness. Who wants to be that county commissioner whose yes or no vote made a life or property saving difference to the negative? Every life is important but no government employer should want to face the family of someone lost in the line of duty.

And so here is the rub for me and perhaps a concern for all citizens. I fear there is already an injection of politics by the current Board. To what end and is it justified? We now get to decide how wise a move this was. If the consensus thinking is to maximize government service while not over spending than we should all be in favor. Prioritize and then do it again. Be good stewards of taxpayer money—but not at the expense of the safety of those same taxpayers. The Board should not be micro managing any department. They can set policy and take the lead on the setting of the millage. They should leave justified expenditures and accounting to the career employees.

There should be every desire in the best public interest to move positively forward. Build on success as built in recent years. I come from a long management line of “…don’t reinvent the wheel” and “… if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. But here we are. It’s difficult to decide if this is a new fix or reinvention. Either way public safety shouldn’t be tossed back and forth like a political football. A closer review of the fire rescue service as now developing, along with some history and supporting data will be provided in upcoming hard copy issues. Find thesuncoaststandard.com through your social media portal(s). Click on PURCHASE in the very top black line to subscribe and ensure you can follow this important public info. Home or business delivery is weekly.

>Parts II and III examine the most recent Suncoast Standard articles: Volume II, Issue 11, CCSO’s LACK OF TRANSPARENCY EVIDENT IN FIRE SERVICES AUDIT; Volume II, Issue 12, SHERIFF P R E N D E R G R A S T RESPONDS. We do our best to interpret and, as always, your thoughts and input are invited.

Pete Cuccaro rose through the ranks of the Miami Dade Police Department. Following his retirement from the County he was appointed Chief of Police and Security for the Miami Dade School Board. He is a past president of the Miami Dade County Association of Chiefs of Police, a life member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police having served on their adjunct faculty and remains a sustaining member of the Florida Police Chiefs Association. He continues his longstanding membership in the Florida Sheriffs and the Florida Deputy Sheriffs Associations. He can be reached at petecuccaro@gmail.com

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